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The Greenhouse Project brings the art and science of cultivation to NYC Schools

June 7, 2018 By Andy Katz Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Left: Greenhouse Project co-founders Sidsel Robards and Manuela Zamora. Photos by Andy Katz
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Imagine kids not only eating their vegetables, but cultivating, harvesting and donating those left over to food bank organizations such as City Harvest.

It’s all in a day’s work for NY Sun Works’ Greenhouse Project.

The idea here is both very simple and quite far-reaching: expand curricula in NYC public schools K-12 by installing and maintaining greenhouses on school grounds, where students learn the details of growing, composting, fertilization, harvesting and even food preparation under the guidance of teachers trained by NY Sun Works.

“Teachers see this as another tool,” explained Greenhouse Project co-founder Sidsel Robards, “Instead of an additional burden. Kids have the opportunity to connect to the environment in a very real, visceral way.”

Greenhouse Project co-founder Manuela Zamora elaborated, “We bring hydroponics technology into the classroom as a hands-on approach to teaching science and sustainability education. Students learn the science behind urban farming while covering the NYC mandated standards.”

“You could smell the basil from the first floor!” Evelyn Cruz, Brooklyn district director for U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, declared while describing the congresswoman’s visit to P.S. 157, one of 40 Brooklyn schools that now include a greenhouse thanks in part to an $11 million grant arranged by Velazquez’s office.

“After our tour was complete, they handed us little jars of basil pesto made onsite,” Cruz added.

Altogether, the Greenhouse Project is established in 73 elementary, middle and high schools in all five NYC boroughs and even New Jersey. The plan is to add an additional 16 before the end of 2018.

Greenhouse sizes and configurations are as diverse as the schools that house them. Many are built on the roofs of space-starved Brooklyn and Manhattan campuses. One of the largest rooftop installations, some 1400 square feet, belongs to P.S. 333, the Manhattan School for Children.

Funding comes from donations, appropriations such as the one supplied by Velazquez’s office and even parents pitching in, raising funds through PTAs and writing grant applications.

“My favorite part is aquaponics,” explained P.S. 333 fifth grader Ben Ami Bar-On. “A tank filled with tilapia produces waste that’s used to feed and water the plants.”

“It’s really helpful to the Earth,” added fellow student Marchella Castile-Ruile. “Because it doesn’t include the poisons in fertilizer.”

“It nurtures a way of thinking, of obtaining food locally,” said 333 K-5 teacher and Greenhouse Project training instructor Shakira Provasoli. “Concepts become clear — the cycle of life, the effects of light, color temperature [and] the role of nutrients, to name a few.”

The dinner features locally sourced wines

Robards and Zamora had children in Provasoli’s class when they were inspired by a visit in 2008 to a floating, sustainable urban farm. The Science Barge, created in 2004 by Dr. Ted Caplaw, was a prototype of agriculture with roots (so to speak) reaching back to the Victory Gardens of World War II and aquaponics methods pioneered by the Aztecs and used in 13th-century China.

Initially docked in Manhattan, the Science Barge now belongs to Groundwork Hudson Valley and is tethered in Yonkers, but its legacy in NYC persists.

Jennifer Prescott oversees school engagement and community liaison issues for Project Greenhouse: “Once the greenhouse is completed, we follow up to offer support, additional teacher training,” she explained. “We also go between the individual schools and organizations such as City Harvest to ensure that food is distributed and not wasted.”

Thomas Edison High Principal Moses Ojeda proudly told the audience that students serve meals twice a week. Now 12 of them have received their NYC food-handling certificates.

“As a principal,” he said, “that is a benefit I can confer on every single child that comes through my high school.”

After a dinner courtesy of Chef Neil Kleinberg and Clinton Street Baking Company, it was time to pay the piper: Special pens that lit up in the cool night were passed around along with pledge forms, while co-master of ceremonies Brian d’Arcy James set the tone by bringing up the F-word.

“That’s right — funding,” James declared, standing alongside fellow fundraiser and actor Sam Robards. James ran through a number of support plateaus. “For $1,000 you can buy a fish pond,” he explained. “The fish poop-nutrient levels are just mind-blowing!”


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